Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man #26 and #27

The Man in The Crime Master's Mask
+ Bring Back My Goblin To Me



Villains: 


The Crime Master and the Green Goblin

Supporting Cast:

Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Flash Thompson, Liz Allan, Frederick Foswell, Principal Davies, Patch, Mr Bush Bushkin, Norman Osborn (un-named)and a chorus of policemen, gangsters and storekeepers.

Spins a Web, Any Size

Peter uses his web as adhesive to hold his store-bought Spider-Man suit together. 

He uses his webbing to create a make-shift gas mask to get through the Crime Master's poison gas.

Chronology


The story follows directly after last issue: Aunt May hasn't had time to put the costume in the trash can. Peter eats breakfast and heads straight to the Bugle before school; he must go to the costume shop after school has finished. (Either Jameson works very long hours, or Parker gets to the office after the night shift is coming to an end.) All the other events are said to happen "minutes" after each other. Peter tells Aunt May he has no school the next day. The action of the story must take place between 3.30PM and early evening on the last Friday before graduation.




2.00 Parker searches for the lost Spider-Man suit.
7.00 Breakfast with Aunt May
7.45 At daily Bugle 
8.30 Arrives at school
15.30 Visits costume shop
16:00 Fights villains, captured, escapes etc. 
20.00 Takes Aunt May to the cinema.

Peter Parker’s financial situation

The Daily Globe thinks that Peter Parker’s pictures are “terrific”; there is no suggestion that they are short-changing Peter, so he probably gets $2,000. 

A movie ticket probably only costs $1, and a bag of popcorn would only have been a quarter, so it’s hard to see how his treating Aunt May set him back more than $3.00.

Observations

26/1 Is the title The Man in the Crime Master's Mask supposed to recall the Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask?

26/2 Parker has ditched his red pajamas, and now seems to be sleeping in his trousers and a white t-shirt. 

26/2 “A Spider-Man without his costume is like a Beatle without his hair.” 
The Beatles were touring the USA in the summer of ‘65, still sporting their “mop top” haircuts.

26/2 “It could only happen to me!” 
Having cleverly sacrificed one costume and stupidly allowed Aunt May to find another one, Peter nevertheless regards his costumelessness as a trick of malignant fate. 

26/5 “Come home by bus if it rains”. 
Is Aunt May under the impression that Peter is going to walk all the way to Madison Avenue, or does she think that buses are drier than subways? 

26/9 “Just what I need - in the window of this costume store.”
In 1954 a Brooklyn Halloween costume company is known to have been selling costumes which looked a little bit like Ditko’s iconic Spider-suit. In 1964, Marvel licensed the same company to make official Spider-Man Halloween costumes - the first piece of Marvel Comics merchandising. Was Ditko obliquely referencing this by showing Spidey suits on sale in a costume shop? 

There is also a Green Goblin mask on display.

“Why don’t you take that Frankenstein suit? They’re selling like hot-cakes!”
Actually, Frankenstein is the name of the scientist who created the monster, not the monster itself. 

“I want it give it to my den mother as a house warming gift!”
A den mother is the adult female leader of a Boy Scout group — roughly equivalent to the English “akela”. Parker’s joke is more than usually meaningless.

“It sure feels good to be back in action again! I feel like an eagle that’s been let out of a cage! I might as well face it… Being Spider-Man is just plain habit forming! It’s like going out with girls…I can’t give it up!”
It is no more than twelve hours -- or nine pages -- since Peter Parker last went into action, but from the reader’s perspective a whole month has past. In issue #18 being Spider-Man was a matter of fate, or destiny; here it is an addiction. Parker comes close to admitting that there is something sexual about it — at any rate, that it’s to do with adulthood and manliness.

26/19 “Now, while you are still groggy, I’ll finish you with one carefully thrown stun-bomb!” 
A stun bomb would presumably disorientate its target with a loud bang and a flash; both Spider-Man and the Goblin expect a direct hit with one of these weapons to be fatal. 

27/2 “The gas which knocked me out is finally wearing off!”
Spider-Man was not knocked out with gas, but with the Green Goblin's stun-bomb.

27/3 “Even chains can’t take away my ever-lovin’ spider-strength!”
Everloving is a generic intensifier (c.f “Ever-lovin’ blue-eye Thing!”) It may originally have been a circumlocution for God (”the Ever Loving Father”) or more vulgarly a euphemism for motherfucking

27/3 “The way my luck has been running lately, someone would think I spend all my time walkin’ under ladders and breaking mirrors!”
Once again, Spider-Man regards a very specific situation as evidence that the universe is out to get him. On the next page, when the police arrive (because they have been tipped off by Patch) the narrator tells us that this is “the stroke of luck that Spider-Man had hoped for". 

27/4 “I feel like Steve Reeves in one of those Italian Costume movies!” 
One of the iconic scenes in Hercules (1958) has the hero tying chains around the pillars of the temple and pulling them down (suggesting that someone had him confused the Romano-Greek Hercules with the Biblical Samson.) The sequel was entitled Hercules Unchained (1959).  

27/8 “That joker’s too much of a dead-eye dick to take any chances with!”
Dead-eye is a common expression for marksman; Dead Eyed Dick may have been the name of a wild west pulp hero. (Dick Deadeye is a villainous character in Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S Pinafore.) 

“Well, where he goest, Spidey will goest!!”
The Old Testament Ruth famously remains loyal to her kinswoman Naomi, saying “Whither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge”. Perry Como recorded a popular song quoting the Bible passage in 1959. 

(”Oh, but Andrew: if Peter is Jewish, as you keep saying, why would he quote the King James version of the Bible?" 

"Because the standard Jewish Publication Society English translation of the Tankah followed the American Standard Bible very closely, which in turn generally followed the Authorized version.") 

27/11 “That reminds me! I haven’t had time to call Betty Brant for days! I wonder if she’s angry!”
As a matter of fact, Peter saw Betty only this morning, and they shouted at each other.

27/14 “I’ll leap up to the wood! Like a Spider-Man should!”
A very weak reference to a TV cigarette advert: “Winston taste good like a cigarette should.” (It was castigated by grammar pedants for not saying "tastes good as a cigarette should".)

27/17 “Copy boy! Bring this article on the M.M.M.S to the feature editor!” 
The M.M.M.S — the Merry Marvel Marching Society — was a fan club that Stan Lee was plugging in the letter columns. In the 1970s UK edition this line was changed to “bring this article on FOOM..”

27/20 “I simply adore a movie that makes me cry!” 
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's Sandpiper came out in the spring of 1965, so maybe that's what May and Peter go and see. It could conceivably have made Aunt May cry, but it is by no means a remake. 

Peter Parker takes Aunt May to the movies by bus. There must have been movie theaters in Forest Hills, so perhaps he has taken her to one of the larger cinemas in central New York? If so, it's a little stingy of him not to pay for a taxi home. 





The 1964 Amazing Spider-Man Annual consisted of a 40 page story with six villains and dozens of guest stars, rounded out with some features and posters. It was so big and bold and long and loud that it still stands as the definitive Spider-Man story, if not the definitive Marvel Comic. 

The 1965 Amazing Spider-Man annual consisted of a 20 page Doctor Strange story and some reprints. 

But at the same time that this lacklustre annual was hitting the stands, the very first two part Spider-Man story was appearing in the regular monthly comic. There had previously been stories with immediate sequels and a thematically linked trilogy, but issue #26 is the first to end on a continued-next-month cliffhanger.

The story is structurally lopsided. Part 1 ends with a mighty cliffhanger as the Green Goblin presents the defeated Spider-Man to the assembled gangsters of New York. But part 2 consists of the police turning up and arresting everyone, Spider-Man failing to catch two different villains, and an extended wrap up. It’s been called a nine-page fight with an eleven page denouement. 

The ending of issue #26 feels awkward. The natural position for the “next issue” box would be the bottom right of the page but it is stuck awkwardly on the left, to avoid covering up the figures of Spidey and the Goblin. If Ditko had intended the issue to break at this point he surely would have left room for a caption running along the bottom of the page? A gangster in the background asking “what’s gonna happen next?” makes the whole thing feel even more forced.

This final panel is pretty much redrawn as the splash page to issue #27. But the figures of Spider-Man and the Green Goblin look stiff. Ditko normally revels in crowd scenes, but the thugs in the audience look sketchy and hastily drawn. Stan Lee makes no real attempt to orientate new readers into the story, and the title Bring Back My Goblin To Me is entirely meaningless. (It could just as well have been called Jack and Jill Went Up the Goblin or By Dawn’s Early Goblin.). 

If The Man in the Crime Master’s Mask was intended to be a 40 page annual everything falls into place. We have a 9 page set-up about Peter Parker’s costume, his last days at school, and about the Crime Master taking over the mobs; 21 pages of Spider-led action; and a 9 page wind down. Note how gently Ditko takes it at the end. The Crime Master gets his comeuppance on page 12; Foswell is cleared on page 14; but the promised revelation about his “strange secret” is held back till page 20. A full six pages is taken up with Peter ditching his wet costume, retrieving his camera, selling his photos, and deciding to give Aunt May a little treat. This is not how you pace a 20 page comic. But as a single 40 page story it all hangs together beautifully. The day starts with Peter Parker snooping around Aunt May’s room trying to find his Spider-Man costume, and ends with them coming home on the bus after going to the pictures together. 

Maybe Stan Lee felt the Crime Master story was unsuitable for an annual and hastily commissioned the Doctor Strange story as a filler. Maybe Ditko had the Doctor Strange story lying around and Stan felt he might as well use it. But what is undeniably true is that The Man in the Crime Master’s Mask makes sense as, and should always be read as, a single 40 page epic.

The splash page to issue #26 — one of Ditko’s simplest and most effective — shows Spider-Man sitting in a giant question mark, surrounded by smaller question marks. But what is the question that he is trying to answer? 

Behind him, is man in a brown suit and a full face mask. (“Ah, it’s Rorschach” says anyone who started reading comics after 1985.) Next to him, hands on hips, laughing at Spider-Man is our old friend the Green Goblin. In between the two of them is Frederick Foswell, who grows more dandyish on each appearance. When we first met him, he was one of those weasily thin newsmen with a little yellow dicky bow but no jacket. Now he seems to have a velvet suit and frilly shirt to match the tie. He may even have acquired a ‘tach. And what colour is that suit? 

Ah yes. Green.

Three issues ago, we were invited to suspect that Foswell was the Green Goblin. This month's splash repeats the suggestion. All the way through the story, we are encouraged to think that Foswell – with his criminal background and his false-backed wardrobe – is the Goblin. Misquoting Winston Churchill, Stan Lee asks us “Can Spider-Man solve this dark riddle. cloaked within a grim puzzle hidden beneath the shadows of a deadly enigma??" The answer turns out to be “No, he can’t.” Spider-Man completely fails to work out who the man in the Crime Master’s mask is: the cops turn up in the final reel and tell him. And neither the police, nor Jameson, nor Spider-Man ever discover the strange secret known only to Frederick Foswell, although Stan and Steve share it with us on the final page. 

The Green Goblin and the Crime Master have made a pact to make themselves bosses – kingpins – of all the criminal gangs of New York. This is a very similar set up to The Goblin and the Gangsters, only three issues ago, when the Goblin tried to set himself up as sole king of crime. The former story suffered slightly because Spider-Man did not have enough to do: the Green Goblin’s plan fell apart due to his own hubris, and would have done so even if our hero had not been involved. The Man in the Crime Master’s Mask also places Spider-Man at the edge of the action. The villains fall out; the Crime Master decides to make himself kingpin without the Goblin’s help. Just as the mobs are about to acknowledge the Crime Master as their leader, the Goblin shows up and challenges him… But they have all been betrayed by one of their own number! The police show up on the basis of a tip off from an informer and everyone is arrested. The Goblin gets away; the Crime Master is shot by the police a short time later. The day has been saved, but not by Spider-Man. 

The excellent wrinkle is that, just before the meeting, the Goblin encounters Spider-Man and knocks him out with a stun bomb: he proves himself worthy to be king of crime by presenting the mob with the unconscious hero. “Anyone who can capture Spider-Man can boss me around any day!” says one of the mobsters. So while Spider-Man isn’t at the center of the story, he is intimately and dangerously mixed up in it. 

The story is full of good stuff: Spider-Man caught in the cross fire as the Goblin and the Crime Master shoot at each other; Spider-Man plummeting from a building, suffocating from the Crime Master’s smoke bombs; the Crime Master evading Spider-Man in a chase through the New York sewers. And, of course, no-one does piers and warehouses and back-streets and grotesques like Ditko. Look at panel 7 on page 2: constructed like a 3D stage set, with the mooring posts in the foreground; the tiny figures of the Goblin and the Crime Master on the pier; and the skyscrapers of New York in the distance. Artwork like this makes me feel homesick for New York, although I have never been there. And look at Ditko’s “camera” work: the longshot of the two villains; the second shot from slightly above them and the close up for the Crime Master leaving the scene as the Goblin flies away.

While the story doesn’t weave multiple plot threads together as intricately as last month's did, it does contain the pay-off to a subplot which has been bubbling away for five issues. Spider-Man now has no costume…so he buys one from a costume shop. But the cheap material instantly shrinks, so he sticks his mask, his gloves, and his socks onto the main suit with webbing. So when the Goblin tries to remove his mask…he can’t. Because it is stuck. An element of farce in the middle of a rather serious story; and a very logical answer to the question “Why don’t the bad guys rip off Parker’s mask when they capture him.” 

But we're not really interested in the Goblin's latest attempt to become head of the Thieves Guild. What we're interested in his his secret identity, the secret identity of the Crime Master, and the (wink!) strange secret of Frederick Foswell. This part of the plot is a structural reworking of The Enforcers, from issue #10. In that story a man in a mask and a hat tried to take over the mobs: all the clues pointed to him being J. Jonah Jameson. A last minute twist revealed that he was Frederick Foswell. This time around, a man in a mask and a hat tries to take over all the mobs and all the clues point to him being Frederick Foswell. A last minute twist reveals that he is – er – nobody very interesting at all. 

The story is less like a whodunit and more like a conjuring trick. A proper mystery lays out all the clues, presents all the information, and challenges the reader to come up with a solution. But this depends much more on misdirection, on fooling the reader. We see the Crime Master threatening the other bosses; we see a shadowy figure in a dingy apartment, removing a disguise; we hear him say “The game I am playing is a very dangerous one” and then we see that it is Foswell. Very well: Foswell is the Crime Master. A bit later, Spider-Man checks out the apartment (having hidden a tracer plot-device in Foswell’s hat) and finds the false backed wardrobe where he keeps his disguise. Suddenly, a shot is fired through the window....by the Crime Master. Which fairly positively confirms that Foswell is the Goblin. After both the Goblin and the Crime Master have escaped from the big fight,  Spider-Man presents the results of his careful investigation to J. Jonah Jameson: “I want to warn you about Frederick Foswell! I’m sure he’s either the Green Goblin or the Crime Master… I’ve no proof yet – but I know he’s mixed up in this somehow!” And, of course, he is right. Foswell has always known that the Crime Master is Lucky Lewis, a gangster apparently well known to Jonah Jameson and the police, but who Peter Parker and we readers have never heard of before. Lewis shot at Spider-Man thinking he was Foswell. Only on the very last page do we find out that Foswell was....the informer who betrayed the Crime Master to the police. That's the disguise he was hiding in his wardrobe. 

No ground work has been laid; nothing has been foreshadowed. Right up until Foswell reveals his secret, Stan and Steve are pointing in the wrong direction and saying “look over there!” If anyone dares say “Cheat! The Crime Master was no-one we’d ever heard of, and we still don’t know who the Goblin is!” Lee can smile one of his creator smiles and say “We never said we’d tell you who the Goblin is. We said we’d reveal the secret of Frederick Foswell...”

Stan Lee has a very ambivalent relationship with “real life”. At the top of page 13, the Crime Master is shot by the police while resisting arrest. (Foswell has kindly acted as bait, to draw him out.) He decides that he will “have the last laugh” and reveal the Green Goblin’s identity. “His real identity is...is...is...” he explains, and then expires. One of the police helpfully points out that this is ever so slightly an incredible cliché “Boy! If I saw that happen in a mystery move I’d laugh at how corny it was!” But at the bottom of the same page, after the disappointing revelation that the Crime Master is Lucky Lewis, Spider-Man thinks: “In real life, when a villain is unmasked, he isn’t always the butler or the one you suspected! Sometimes he’s a man you didn’t even know!” 

In the space of a single page, Lee has expressed the view that the denouement is too much like a story and that it is not story-like enough. I am always inclined to take meta-textual remarks of this kind as not-so-subtle digs at Steve Ditko.

There is a persistent oral tradition which says that Stan and Steve disagreed about who the Green Goblin would eventually turn out to be. According to some versions, it was this artistic difference, rather than a dispute about pay or credits, which led to the dissolution of the partnership. There are a number of reasons for thinking that the story is not literally true but the essence of the tradition is that the two men differed over whether the Amazing Spider-Man should follow story-logic or real-life logic. Lee wanted the Goblin to be someone Spider-Man already knew because that would surprise and delight the readers. Ditko wanted the Goblin to be an unknown, because that is how it would probably be in real life. Lee’s response (50 years after the event) is unanswerable. In real life, super-villains like the Green Goblin don’t exist. But isn't it strange to hear Stan Lee -- so proud of having "dreamed up" a realistic superhero -- now blaming Steve Ditko for wanting to make Spider-Man too realistic.

The unmasking of the Crime Master is done according to Ditko’s model. It isn't quite true to say that he is “no-one important” or “just some guy”. We are told that Lucky Lewis is a powerful and infamous gangster. It’s just that neither Lee nor Ditko has bothered to put him in the story up to now. It would have been a much bigger cheat, and a much bigger disappointment, if Spider-Man had pulled off the Crime Master's mask and discovered that he was, say, Liz Allan. That kind of thing is just a cheap way of creating the appearance of a clever twist without going to the trouble of setting up a clever puzzle; of giving your villain an importance he hasn't earned. (A decade later, Gerry Conway "revealed" that the Jackal was in fact Peter Parker's old science teacher Prof. Warren. It didn't make him any more interesting.)

If Peter Parker is the center of the universe and everything revolves around him, then it makes excellent sense for people from his private life to keep turning out to be super villains. But the entire point of the Man in the Crime Master’s Mask is that he isn't and it doesn't. Spider-Man doesn’t solve the mystery; Spider-Man doesn't catch any of the bad guys. If anything, he's a background character in the story of Frederick Foswell's. So of course the Crime Master is someone who Foswell knows and Parker doesn't. For this month at least, life really is like that. 





2 comments:

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